Your working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation are core components of executive function (EF), an interrelated set of mental skills that lay the foundation for advanced cognitive processes and goal-oriented behaviors.

Behind every decision you make, every change you adapt to, and every task you plan is your executive function (EF). Just as a building’s foundation is essential to the stability and support of a structure, your EF provides the basis and framework for more advanced cognitive processes and behaviors.

And just as a compromised foundation can cause instability in a building, disrupted EF (also called executive dysfunction) can affect how successfully you interact with others, manage tasks, and regulate your behavior.

“EF” is a collective term for an array of cognitive processes. It includes the mental functions essential for cognitive control, or your ability to change, manage, and direct your thoughts, behaviors, and emotional responses.

While there’s some debate as to which cognitive skills are included under the EF banner, many experts believe it consists of at least three core dimensions:

  • inhibitory control (self-regulation)
  • working memory (the application of obtained information)
  • cognitive flexibility (adapting thoughts and actions to meet new challenges)

Within those dimensions are mental processes such as:

  • reasoning
  • planning
  • problem-solving
  • attentional control
  • decision making
  • impulse control
  • logical organization of thoughts (sequencing)
  • emotional regulation
  • purposeful, goal-oriented behavior
  • speed of processing information
  • comprehension
  • self-awareness (metacognition)
  • theory of mind (your ability to recognize the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others)

EF is primarily associated with the prefrontal cortex of your brain, but many brain regions work together to complete your higher level cognitive processes and regulation. For example, your thalamus, which is located near the center of your brain, supports EF by helping to regulate consciousness and alertness involved with attention.

Examples of EF are present in your life every day. They include scenarios such as:

  • completing a project with stages, such as building a bookcase or cooking from a recipe
  • creating a schedule, such as planning your day around appointments
  • solving a problem, such as finding fixes for a mysterious leak
  • interacting socially, such as expressing empathy, maintaining control during debates, and adjusting your behaviors based on the social setting
  • organizing, such as rearranging your desk or handling tasks in order of importance
  • multitasking, such as being able to talk on the phone while cleaning
  • managing a household, such as paying bills on time, budgeting, and keeping purchases within your means
  • making decisions, such as deciding which milk alternative to buy, picking a shirt color for work, or selecting a time of year to vacation

When you have problems with EF, also known as executive dysfunction, one or more EF processes aren’t performing in a typical way.

Because EF underlies many different self-directed thoughts and actions, executive dysfunction can present in a variety of ways. Some people may experience only subtle differences, while for others executive dysfunction can cause major impairment.

Signs of EF challenges

EF changes can present very differently depending on the person and the situation. Common challenges in executive dysfunction include:

  • not planning ahead
  • having trouble staying organized
  • missing deadlines
  • making poor decisions
  • recklessly following impulses
  • being unable to multitask
  • forgetting details
  • losing important items
  • feeling unmotivated
  • poorly managing time
  • having trouble staying focused
  • finding it difficult to switch between tasks
  • feeling unable to follow conversations
  • finding it difficult to communicate effectively
  • missing social cues
  • being unable to adapt your thoughts and behaviors in new situations

EF challenges can be caused by many factors that affect your brain’s function or structure, including:

EF and mental health have a bidirectional relationship, meaning each one can influence the other.

For example, executive dysfunction may worsen mental health challenges by affecting emotional regulation, coping skills, and daily function. In addition, mental health challenges may worsen EF difficulties by further impairing cognitive processes.

According to a 2023 research review, EF can be predictive of both mental and physical health and health behaviors. If you experience significant executive dysfunction, you may be more likely to experience challenges related to physical and mental well-being.

A 2017 study found that students living with depression, anxiety, or stress experienced higher levels of executive dysfunction than students who were not living with mental health conditions.

You can improve your EF skills with practice and the right support. Activities that target specific EF processes, such as working memory, can help you improve your performance, and tools such as electronic planners can help you stay on track.

Ways to improve EF include:

  • engaging with games or puzzles that require critical thinking
  • practicing self-regulation techniques such as mindfulness or deep breathing
  • setting alarms to help with task management
  • using planners, calendars, and organizational tools
  • breaking tasks down into smaller steps
  • recording important meetings or lectures for later review
  • reevaluating a past problem to see how many solutions you can come up with
  • setting a time limit for completing several tasks to encourage prioritizing and multitasking
  • writing down a daily schedule
  • seeking treatment for mental or physical conditions that are contributing to executive dysfunction

Many people living with EF challenges benefit from seeking professional support. Treatment can take place in a group or a one-on-one setting and may involve approaches such as:

  • cognitive orientation to occupational performance intervention
  • goal-plan-do review
  • metacognitive strategy instruction
  • video and verbal feedback
  • time pressure management
  • strategic memory and reasoning training
  • goal management training

Executive function (EF) includes the thought processes that are involved in high level mental skills such as problem-solving, emotional regulation, adaptability, and metacognition.

It’s a part of your everyday lived experience and can be seen in everything from following a recipe to deciding what to wear the next day for work.

While impaired or atypical EF can affect your ability to function in many areas of life, you can improve your EF skills with targeted exercises and support interventions.